For more than a month, coronavirus has brought cleanup of a 586-square-mile decommissioned nuclear production complex in south-eastern Washington state to a near standstill.
Now with signs that Washington has turned a corner with the virus and the state’s governor slowly starting to relax some safety measures, Hanford workers are looking at the very real possibility of returning to work.
But after facing those initial few weeks of Washington’s coronavirus crisis on-site at Hanford, workers say they received little information and even fewer safety measures from leadership, and some employees are terrified by the prospect.
“When you come back to work, what’s the expectation [for protections]?” asked a maintenance and operations worker at Hanford, who asked not to be identified by the Guardian to protect his job. “There are none.”
Beginning in the 1940s, the Hanford site produced plutonium for nuclear weapons, including the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki at the end of the second world war. The site was also relied on heavily during the cold war, ultimately becoming the country’s main supplier of plutonium for its nuclear weapons.
That production came with a price. By the time the work was stopped and federal and state agencies agreed to start the cleanup process in 1989, billions of gallons of waste water had already contaminated the ground and groundwater, with some reaching the Columbia River. Addressing this contamination and 56m gallons of radioactive waste stored in underground tanks, has already come with plenty of risks for the site’s thousands of employees.
After Washington health officials reported the first US death associated with coronavirus in late February and then, with each passing week, were documenting the most cases in the country, employees say it remained business as usual at Hanford, where the cleanup project is run by the federal Department of Energy, with work completed through contractors.
During those first few weeks, workers recall receiving little guidance on site-specific coronavirus safety measures. They say information from Hanford officials tended to be overly broad, focusing on the nationwide situation rather than the unique needs of workers in a state that was at that time at the center of the US coronavirus crisis.
A radiological control technician, who has worked at Hanford for more than 15 years, said trailers continued to be shared by as many as 50 people and each Monday morning 200 employees would come together for a meeting in a single room.
When workers finished at one of the many contaminated areas of Hanford, they needed to be checked for radiation before leaving. Technicians would stand next to them, without a mask on, running a handheld device over their body – being sure to stay within a quarter of an inch of their skin to ensure accurate readings.
In a single hour, one of these radiological control technicians, may have surveyed as many as 30 people.
“There’s no way to keep that social distancing. You’re right up in somebody’s face, they’re breathing on you, they’re sweaty,” said the technician, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation at work.
Tom Carpenter, executive director of the Hanford Challenge, a not-for-profit watchdog organization in Seattle, said he received at least 10 emails and phone calls in two weeks in March from employees worried about Hanford not providing face masks or gloves or requiring social distancing to protect them from coronavirus.
“Workers were highly distressed about their own health and safety, and felt that management was not taking this issue seriously,” he said.
“Stop works”, a protocol at Hanford in which an employee notices something is unsafe or hazardous and work is halted until officials can fix the problem, became so frequent on issues related to coronavirus, said the radiological control technician, that little work was actually getting done.
“People were asking for protocols on how to survey the people and material and what kind of products to use, what kind of procedures do you need to do, do you need to spray it first, do you need to wipe it first,” she said. “Just all these instructions that they were asking for to do their job and feel like they were being protected.”
It wasn’t until 25 March – after Governor Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home mandate, which involved the closure of all non-essential companies (Hanford is considered essential) – that the site switched to a state of essential mission-critical operations.
The site will remain functioning in this capacity through at least Friday. It’s unclear whether this will be renewed beyond then.
Carpenter said the concern over the lack of protection is about more than keeping workers safe from coronavirus. He said if the virus were to get passed throughout Hanford, it could put the highly sensitive work being done there in jeopardy.
“You just wonder, do they have sufficient personnel out there to safeguard and notice if something is going wrong and can take sufficient action that sometimes would have to be taken within minutes or hours to prevent something bad from happening?” he said. “That’s our prime concern: do they have the right people out there, doing the right things, to ensure the safety of the site?”
Carpenter said Hanford officials have reported that two workers have been diagnosed with coronavirus, but he said, “there’s almost assuredly more”.
In a letter sent to employees on 4 April, Hanford officials said that non-medical masks on-site are not required and “workers who choose to wear a face covering should plan to bring their own from home. Medical grade masks are in very short supply and are being reserved for healthcare workers, so they are generally not available.”
The maintenance and operations worker at Hanford, who is considered essential and currently reports on-site about two times a week, said he considers himself lucky because his group has a stockpile of gloves and masks. But he only expects it to last two to three weeks.
The worker told the Guardian: “Going forward, do we have enough personal protective equipment to protect the workforce? The answer is no.”
Geoff Tyree, spokesperson for the US Department of Energy, Hanford Site, said in a statement on Friday that no timeline has been set in terms of a return to full operations, and plans will be adapted based on how the coronavirus situation continues to develop.
“The health and safety of our workforce is our top priority, and we will continue to operate in a safe, responsible, and deliberate manner,” he said.